Spare a Thought for Your Interpreting Teacher (Part 2 – Simultaneous)

We all know that simultaneous interpreting is a great juggling act. Many readers have probably already seen the video that illustrates this in such an entertaining fashion. Others may have read this post by Dolmetscher-Berlin that so eloquently expresses the multi-tasking aspect of our job. Or maybe you’ve delved into one of the many papers and articles that describe the processes involved in the task (there are plenty to choose from: for a start, try checking here and here).

In any case, I think by now it’s clear that the task of the student of simultaneous interpreting is an enormous one. Students have to learn how to juggle all those balls, which include listening, understanding, analysis, synthesis, reformulation, production, monitoring of output – and if you ask Dolmetscher-Berlin, also include such minor matters as remembering to breathe, taking the occasional sip of water and jotting down terminology – without letting any of the balls drop.

Okay, so now put yourself in the place of the interpreting teachers responsible for monitoring the acquisition of these juggling skills. We not only have to be able to tell when a ball has been dropped (that’s the relatively easy part), but we also have to be able to determine why it fell and advise the apprentice juggler on how to make sure it doesn’t happen next time.

Put this way, it makes me want to abandon the whole business of teaching simultaneous right now and go take up knife-throwing, or tightrope-walking, or something considerably less nerve-wracking. But no, I’m an interpreter trainer, and so like it or not, my business is to figure out where the simultaneous interpreting process is breaking down and try to remedy the situation.

Of course, I already partially dealt with this in a previous (self-pitying) post on the related topic of the challenges of teaching consecutive interpreting. Today, I want to look at the same question from the standpoint of teaching simultaneous.

No, it’s not indigestion

Let me start by clarifying for students that the pained look to be seen on their teachers’ faces when they are listening to students at work in the booth is not (usually) due to any whoppers they have heard coming through the headphones, nor is it due to their having had a particularly heavy meal before class.

The blame for the furrowed brow and clenched jaw lies with the level of concentration required in order to listen to the original speech for meaning while checking the interpretation to identify any content that might be missing, or added, or just plain wrong, while at the same time monitoring the student’s performance for flow, expression, use of terminology, and a host of other factors. Also, most of the time we are thinking in the back of our heads: “How would I interpret that?” and then comparing our own theoretical version with what we hearing coming out of the booth across from us. It’s kind of like juggling all those balls while walking a tightrope and throwing knives all at the same time.

Whenever we hear something go wrong, we then immediately have to switch into diagnostic mode. This means trying to determine whether the error was due to the student having missed a bit of information as a result of acoustic interference (speaking and listening at the same time is really distracting!), whether the culprit might have been a bit of unfamiliar terminology or possibly a lack of general knowledge, whether the problem lies in the student not yet having mastered the arts of active listening and analysis – something which they should have figured out in their consecutive classes but which many still struggle with for months – or whether it was a simple slip of the tongue that has gone unnoticed by the student, because they haven’t yet learned to monitor what comes out of their mouths. Also, we usually have to ask ourselves whether the student might have avoided the problem by reformulating the ideas better instead of slavishly following the original in syntactical and lexical terms.

While we’re busy diagnosing the error, we also have to be on the lookout for the next mistake, which may come sooner than either teacher or student might like, while of course remembering to jot down “expression!” “salami!” “false friend!” or whatever other shorthand we have developed to help ourselves recall what it is we want to say to the students at the end of each exercise.

How did Houdini do it, anyhow?

I’m the first to admit I don’t really know the way out of this tangle. As I said in my companion post on this topic, I don’t really have any easy solutions to the many and varied challenges faced by teachers of interpreting. However, I feel that the merit of this exercise lies in recognising the difficulties of the teaching process and learning how to deal with them.

More than anything, I feel that as trainers, we need to learn that we are not serving the needs of our students by giving them feedback to the tune of “you should have said X instead of Y” or “that didn’t sound very natural/idiomatic/fluent”. Instead, we need to try and behave as we do when we are in the booth.

Let me explain: to produce a good interpretation, we need to get into the heads of the speaker. To give good feedback in class, we need to try to get into the heads of the students. We need to think “What made that student just say Y instead of X?” or “Why didn’t that sound very natural?” and then offer useful input as to how the problem can be remedied the next time around.

I admit it, it’s extremely difficult to give useful feedback of this type, in a personalised fashion for each student and adapted to each context, and yet we must try, or we won’t be doing our students justice. And so, once again, I ask you to spare a thought for your poor interpreting teacher.

Read the companion post:

Spare a Thought for Your Interpreting Teacher (Part 1 – Consecutive)

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13 thoughts on “Spare a Thought for Your Interpreting Teacher (Part 2 – Simultaneous)

  1. Great post!
    I do experience just what you mentioned when I am listening to my students at class. I am trying to listen to the original and the interpretation and at the same time I am thinking of what I would do with that speech.
    It doesn´t matter that learn by heart the speeches before class.

    • You’re right. Funnily enough, sometimes they come up with something that we wouldn’t necessarily have used, and it turns out to be just as good or even better – and of course we have to recognise those moments as well!

  2. Thank you for your thoughts. I completely agree with you, indeed, teaching SI is very similar to juggling on a tight rope :)
    I love this part
    “To give good feedback in class, we need to try to get into the heads of the students. We need to think “What made that student just say Y instead of X?” or “Why didn’t that sound very natural?” and then offer useful input as to how the problem can be remedied the next time around.”

    I would like to ask you something too, how do you formulate the feedback for the students? Do you take the NLP approach? I realized that it is no point in giving them too much info and that minor stuff are better left out sometimes …

    • Like I said in my reply to Tolken (below), I try to focus on setting one or two objectives per session and then base my feedback on that. Of course, I might hear something else that is a perfect example of another principle, and if there’s time at the end I will address that, too.

      The students themselves tend to get bogged down in the details, so it’s our job to get them away from that and encourage them to start thinking about the “big picture” or underlying principles.

      Of course, I’m not saying that our feedback shouldn’t be based on specific examples. No point saying something general like “I thought that sounded good”, because you’re not telling them what they did right so they won’t know how do it again. We need to be targeted in our comments, and at the same time always give them a context. “I thought that sounded good … because it flowed naturally, your voice was animated, and you didn’t insert pauses into funny places in the sentence, and of course as we know the whole point of interpreting is communicating a message” is already a lot more useful kind of comment for students.

  3. I particularly liked the part about the frowning eye-brows and the tense face. How true! And how we must come across as extremely daunting. I always find it difficult to make feed-back constructive and not just falling in the trap of: “You said skimmed milk, but the speaker actually said DEMI-écremé” and likewise

    • You’re so right, it’s very hard to avoid getting into that habit! I find one good way to stay “on the ball” is to establish an objective for a given session or speech, and then try to focus comments on that particular objective.

      So at the start of class you tell students you want them to focus on one aspect (sounding natural, finishing all their sentences, applying the salami technique, whatever suits their level), and then try to listen for whether they are doing it or not. Feedback would then be focused on whether they met the objective, and if not, why not.

      Also, once students are a bit more advanced, you can ask them to choose their own objective, have them tell you what they want to work on before the start of the exercise, and then try to focus feedback on that.

  4. “Also, most of the time we are thinking in the back of our heads: “How would I interpret that?” and then comparing our own theoretical version with what we hearing coming out of the booth across from us. It’s kind of like juggling all those balls while walking a tightrope and throwing knives all at the same time.”

    You couldn’t have explained it better! I absolutely agree and share every single word and image created by you in this post! Specially “More than anything, I feel that as trainers, we need to learn that we are not serving the needs of our students by giving them feedback to the tune of “you should have said X instead of Y” or “that didn’t sound very natural/idiomatic/fluent”. Instead, we need to try and behave as we do when we are in the booth”.

    That’s why I am so mad about our #aiicT4T next weekend! I love reading on research that helps me improve my feedback to students and understand my own booth behaviour better too!

    Excellent comments too from all!

  5. Thanks for the great post! As an interpreting student, I actually prefer simultaneous to consecutive (adrenaline junkie that I am.) Our fantastic teachers here at the University of Salamanca actually make us listen to our fellow students in mock conferences, and analyzing their interpretation is part of our mark. It is HARD! Especially because, as Judith mentioned above, you’re also wondering how you would have dealt with a certain piece of information and comparing the outcome.

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  8. Thanks for another great blog post. (I know this post is not new, but it’s new to me since I just read it.) FYI, this post and the companion post are recommended reading in the Assessment for Interpreter Educators course I’m taking in the Master of Arts in Interpreting Studies and Teaching Interpreting program of Western Oregon University.

    I like how you say that telling students they should have said one thing instead of another is not effective assessment, and that what we must do is get into the head of the students to see why they said what they said. This will help me in my assessment, so I thank you!

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